Tiny sesame seeds are popping up across Alabama farms where the crop could make a big impact on farmers’ bottom lines. However, near-record summer rainfall dampened high hopes for a plentiful harvest last year.
In Alabama, farmers contracted to grow a record 7,500 acres of sesame in 2013, up from only 1,500 in 2012.
“It’s unfortunate we didn’t have a more normal year to see what sesame would do,” said William Birdsong, a Geneva County Farmers Federation board member and agronomist with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System. “Our biggest problem was the rain. It’s hard to judge the crop’s potential based on this year.”
Birdsong grew 50 acres of sesame, and rain pushed his last planting to Aug. 10. He said an early November frost kept some sesame pods from maturing.
Early yield reports are sporadic across Alabama, ranging from 500 pounds per acre in waterlogged fields to 1,200 pounds per acre in drier areas.
Lee County farmer Ben Ingram is a contract agronomist with Sesaco Corp., a Texas-based sesame seed company. He said sesame grows well in arid conditions, so there are plenty of reasons to remain optimistic about future crops in Alabama.
“We see no reason why Alabama couldn’t consistently produce yields of 1,000 to 1,200 pounds per acre,” Ingram said. “State yields in 2012 averaged 900 pounds an acre. Farmers don’t need specialized equipment for sesame. It can be harvested with any combine, grain platform or draper head. It’s planted in rows with regular row crop planters or grain drills.”
Marketing the crop is easy, Ingram said, because Sesaco buys all the sesame its contract farmers grow. Harvested sesame must be handled at an approved facility. Currently, Alabama farmers can carry seed to the state docks in Montgomery or facilities in Florida and Georgia.
Sesaco mainly sells sesame for buns, crackers and other specialty foods, Ingram said, adding that the market for sesame is strong.
“At this point, sesame is mainly grown in Texas and Oklahoma,” Ingram said. “We have not been able to supply the U.S. demand. We have to import. As we gain stability in sesame acreage, more products could be developed.”
Autauga County farmer Andy Wendland added sesame to his crop rotation for the first time in 2013. Planting 250 acres was a learning process, he said, but he sees potential.
“Sesame seemed like a good fit because it didn’t require much moisture, and it isn’t appealing to wildlife,” said Wendland, who saw yields of 800 pounds an acre. “Other growers can give recommendations, but we had to adjust our machines. The small seeds can be a little hard to handle, but our experience was positive. We’ll probably raise it again.”
As a relatively new crop for Alabama, Ingram said raising sesame is a learning process for all growers. He said Sesaco recommends farmers rotate locations where the crop is planted.
“In farming, there is no silver bullet,” Ingram said. “Sesame may not work well for everyone, and that’s understandable. But knowing there is a market provides a sense of optimism we haven’t had in a while in agriculture. At this point, farmers could just give it a shot with 75 to 100 acres to see what it can do on their farm.”